What will happen when the Nike Inc. (NYSE: NKE) Swoosh that sits on Tiger Woods’s golf bag is not seen as often on TV as last season, when he won five PGA events? This year, when he has rarely been near the lead in any tournament, and therefore rarely on television, that Nike logo has been mostly out of sight. At least Nike sponsors rapidly rising champion Rory McIlroy. However, the visibility dilemma applies to all of Woods’s sponsors, particularly since he injured his back again at the Bridgestone Invitational.
Woods spent so many years at the head of the pack in golf, a period over which he won 14 Majors, and 79 PGA events, that it was a bonanza for sponsors. In the first category, he is second only to Jack Nicklaus, in the second to Sam Snead. For most of that time he had relationships with huge companies, which included AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Accenture PLC (NYSE: ACN). Those sponsors left him after sex scandals in 2009.
What Woods has left now, beyond Nike and Rolex, is a group of second-tier sponsors that rely on him almost completely as the face of their products. These include Japanese conglomerate Kowa, sports nutrition company MusclePharm and the Upper Deck Company, a sports collectibles operation. While they may have a way to claw back money, from a visibility standpoint, they are out of luck.
These sponsors may never get their money’s worth. Woods may not return to competitive golf this year. If his back problem is severe enough, he may never reappear as a professional player at all. He has been swinging golf clubs since he was two years old. The nagging injuries of so much torque may have taken a final toll.
His value might be salvaged because of his tremendous fame. Basketball great Michael Jordan still has a line of Nike athletic wear and shoes. Jordan is 51 and years away from the career that made him the greatest athlete of all time in his sport.
Woods’s sponsors should be as lucky as Jordan’s. For the time being, they have good reason to be anxious.